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Office hours only: Why charging databases need to change

Weekly Column. By Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield

Imagine this: It’s 30 degrees Celsius, you’ve been driving (on and off) for the best part of five hours, and your car only has 12 miles of range left. You’re somewhere new, feel a bit cranky and you need A Nissan LEAF electric car-can it accurately tell you where the nearest charging station is?a wee. But it’s all okay, because just up the road, there’s a public charging station where you can charge your car. And you know it’s there, because you checked online.

Except you can’t use it, because it isn’t open any more... or the site has closed for the day... or the security guard doesn’t like the look of your face... or it’s the second Thursday of the month... or you’re wearing yellow...

It sounds funny when you put it like that, but there’s nothing more frustrating than arriving in your EV at a location to find a working charging station that you can’t use for some reason. Especially if it’s behind locked gates or an angry security guard with delusions of grandeur blocks your path.

Mercifully, it’s not happened to me that many times, but incorrect data on public charging databases often means drivers turn up at a location to find that the charging station they thought was easily accessible is anything but.

Calling for help

Take a trip I made from Bristol to Norwich to see my mother earlier this week. Having planned ahead and executed most of my trip meticulously, I arrived at my final quick charging stop -the Green An ecotricity charging station-thankfully there is an out-of-hours helpline if electric car drivers have any problemsBritain Centre in Swaffham, Norfolk-to find the gates were locked and the charging station I needed the other side of them.

Luckily for me, help was at hand. Ecotricity-the electricity company which operates the Electric Highway network of charging stations and also happens to own the Green Britain Centre-has an excellent out-of-hours emergency helpline for situations like this. A few minutes into the call, a helpful chap called Stuart had not only found me somewhere else to charge (a lovely hotel round the corner with a type 2 unit), but said he would do his very best to make sure I didn’t get stranded like this again.

When I returned early on Wednesday morning on my way back to Bristol and needing a 5am charge to get me heading west before the traffic built up, Stuart had phoned ahead, making sure I could get into the usually locked parking area to charge my car. Top marks for Ecotricity, and a gold star from me.

Then it happened again. On my next stop on the trip, I discovered that the dealer I was hoping to charge at was still closed. And while I could physically get to the charger and plug my car in, I couldn’t use the unit because the RFID card I needed was inside the locked dealership. And that’s the way it stayed for half an hour, until a member of staff arrived and helped me fetch out the card.

Data-crude

I’ll admit. On both of these occasions, I was helped and got on my way relatively quickly. But that’s really not the point: most Internet-based directories and databases (even Nissan’s own Carwings A map showing charging stations around the country from ev-network.org.uksystem) doesn’t accurately report the difference between publicly-accessible, private, and restricted access charging stations. In fact, I view charging databases as so inaccurate that I often skip them altogether, sticking with the networks and sites that I know and trust.

Worse still, each and every website carries a slightly different dataset, so locations listed on one site aren’t on another, or are listed as having different access and charging technology. It’s enough to give even the most willing of internet researchers a headache.

Essentially, the Russian roulette which is public electric car charging still has horribly cruel odds-even if you’ve got the right card, have the right address, and the correct cable -but there are three very simple solutions.

Firstly, drivers, manufacturers, and charging networks need to stop producing a myriad of different charging databases. Instead, all efforts should be focused on one simple list, maintained and supported by all. One list to rule them all, just without Golem.

One such list -the open charge map- is valiantly trying to do just this with an open-source, creative-commons database. But without support from drivers, car makers, and charging networks, it looses its power. Access to charging stations can be tricky

Second, each and every location where a charging station is located needs to think about 24 hour access if it truly wants to offer public charging. That means putting charging stations in front of gates and barriers, not behind. And those collating the data about such sites need to make sure that private “staff only” sites are listed as such or not at all.

Finally, drivers, car makers and charging networks need to start engaging about what charging is and what it should be. Once we all start working together, sculpting acceptable use and citing information, then being stuck without a charge should be a thing of the past.

The bottom line is this: in order for EV adoption rates to improve, we need better, more accountable charging infrastructure. It’s getting there, but there’s still a way to go.

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Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield

Filed under: Electric cars, Weekly Column

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